Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett

Equal RitesI read my first Terry Pratchett novel almost a year ago after picking it up by chance in my favorite Cleveland used bookstore. So obviously, when I found myself in said bookstore again, and there were three used Pratchetts just sitting there waiting for me, I snapped them all up without reservation. And when I found myself on a plane in a middle seat with my intended next read up in the overhead bin but those three paperbacks sitting under the seat in front of me, I grabbed the one on top and settled in for a good read.

And it was! I was a little iffy at first on the premise, which is that there’s a baby girl accidentally given wizard powers by a dying wizard who meant to give them to a baby boy, because of course boys can be wizards and girls can be witches and neither the other way around. Yay.

It’s a premise that has been done before, but Pratchett does it in his own reasonably amusing style and so therefore it’s done better. The girl wizard, Esk, grows up not knowing about her wizardliness, and when her magic starts to show her witchy grandmother tries to teach her the witchly ways but soon realizes that just won’t be enough. So Esk and Granny Weatherwax set off on a journey to the wizard school, a journey that is of course full of adventure and danger and magic. Sold!

There is also, as you might expect, a bit of discussion about women’s rights and the nature of girls versus boys, but it’s surprisingly nuanced and intelligent for an ostensibly humorous book. That Pratchett is wily!

As before, what really makes the story is Pratchett’s way with words. From the first page: “This is also a story about sex, although probably not in the athletic, tumbling, count-the-legs-and-divide-by-two sense unless the characters get totally beyond the author’s control. They might.”

From a random page in the middle: “For the first time in her life Granny wondered whether there might be something important in all these books people were setting such store by these days, although she was opposed to books on strict moral grounds, since she had heard that many of them were written by dead people and therefore it stood to reason reading them would be as bad as necromancy.”

Like Guards, Guards!, this book is pretty simple plot-wise and character-wise, but writing-wise it is doubleplusgood and therefore the perfect plane or beach or lunchtime or anytime reading. I am very glad I have two more of Pratchett’s books on hand, and more glad that there are like eight million more to read after those!

Recommendation: To copy myself, for fans of British humor (i.e. Douglas Adams, Monty Python) and fantasy novels and satire and fun.

Rating: 7/10

And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed-peeks in- Uh, hi there! Insert apologies for absence here, something about New Job and New Apartment and Temporary Lack of Internet and whatever, let’s talk about books!

One of the members of my book club had the rest of the club choose between this book and The Fault in Our Stars as our July book, and although at the time I would much rather have re-read TFiOS (because AWESOME) than read another Hosseini novel, I am very glad that I was forced to read this instead, because AWESOME.

Beware the rest of this post, because while I think that you can’t really spoil a novel like this, I personally really enjoyed knowing nothing at all about this book before diving in, so if you are that kind of reader just run away, obtain this book, and read the heck out of it.

The book starts off as a person telling some other people a sort of fairy tale story about a fellow who loses his favorite son to a tricky demon/god thing. The father decides, naturally, that he must go get his son back, so he braves all the things and makes his way to the demon/god’s home for wayward children, which turns out to be this great and awesome place and the father is now forced to choose between taking his son home to a decidedly not-great and not-awesome place, or leaving his son with the demon/god and losing all memory of said son’s existence. Aaaugh, that is a terrible choice.

So then in the next chapter it turns out that the storyteller was a father with two children whose own stories may possibly closely match the story in the first chapter, and it’s terrible watching this story play out in “real” life (oh, frame stories!) but also so very interesting.

Which is basically how the rest of the book plays out. The chapters each feature a different character and tell his or her story, or at least the parts that are interesting and relate to the other characters and chapters. Most of the stories involve some terrible thing that happens and focus on how the protagonist deals or refuses to deal with it, and although the results are invariably depressing on some level they are also kind of amazingly relatable. I came away from so many of the stories thinking, yes, that is a true thing that is true but I had never really thought of it in that way and now I feel rather enlightened, but also depressed.

I think my favorite of the chapters is the fifth one, in which two cousins return to their family home in Afghanistan in an attempt to reclaim the family lands abandoned many years previous. The one cousin is this outgoing and ostentatious dude, totally excited by the prospect of being back in the homeland and doing homeland-y type things and being a sort of savior to his people or whatever. The other is totally grossed out by his cousin but finds himself drawn to a little girl who obviously needs medical help, help that he as a doctor could probably totally provide if he just pulled the right strings, and while he’s in Afghanistan he makes all these grand plans but when he gets back to America (SPOILERS!) those plans take a backseat to, like, being a fairly well-off doctor who doesn’t have to worry himself about random children on another continent. I think everyone can relate to getting really excited about a thing or a cause and then having that excitement die off as regular life intrudes and says, hey, that couch over there looks really comfy, you should go have a nap on it; but of course when it’s a person and not a thing it’s so much worse, and our protagonist cousin knows this. This chapter is a heart-stabber, and I love it.

As with any story collection, which is more or less what this is, there are some stories that are less awesome than, say, my favorite one. But I am hard-pressed to think of any that were bad or disappointing, and if there are any you can probably skip them without losing too much of the thread of the novel. Though considering how eager I was to keep reading this book, even in the midst of a disappointingly short vacation, I don’t think there’s much worry about that.

I was really not expecting, when I started this book, to come here to the blog and sing its praises, or to have a book club meeting about it where we just all said, “Oh, this part is so good! And this part! And this other part! And all the parts!” But it is totally deserving of all those exclamation marks, and more, and if you have a nice long plane adventure ahead of you this will definitely make it seem a lot shorter (she says, from experience).

Recommendation: For those who love short stories that fit together to make a whole novel, those who want to learn more about Afghanistan, and those who don’t mind being incredibly depressed about the whole thing.

Rating: 10/10

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

American GodsFinally! Finally, I have read through the entire American Gods canon. Backwards, of course, because that’s how I roll (that is not how I roll). First it was Anansi Boys, all the way back in 2009, and then “Monarch of the Glen” in… 2011?! Goodness, time flies.

Now it is American Gods and I must say that this is probably my favorite of the set, for many reasons, including a) I don’t really remember the other stories that well just now, b) but this is definitely a different story than the others, c) I’ve got some more Gaiman under my belt and have an idea of what’s going on here in general, and d) it’s really just an awesome book. How awesome? It has an epilogue, that I liked. Inconceivable!

Right, so, anyway, what is this book about, you ask? Well, basically what it says on the tin. There’s a fella called Shadow who finds himself in the employ of one Mr. Wednesday, whose stalking capabilities are second to none and who turns out to be a certain god who is interested in getting together the old gang of immigrant gods to fight against the new American gods (TV, computers, and the like) who are snuffing said old gods out. Of course, it’s not that easy, and so Shadow finds himself trying to avoid some shadowy and poorly code-named government agents (Mr. Wood? Mr. Town? Quite creative, those) while also trying to figure out what to do with his undead wife who just wants to love him with her cold, nonbeating heart. You know, the usual.

But most of the book isn’t really about that war of the gods plot so much as it is about introducing the various gods in their guises and disguises, whether it’s a star goddess or a folk hero or stereotypically drunk leprechaun. Gaiman obviously had a lot of fun putting the old gods into the modern day, and although some of them seem mysterious at first he doesn’t leave you hanging too long on their actual identities so that you can go Wikipedia the heck out of them — which makes me think, man, if only this book had been written a few years later it would have had some really strange and interesting gods.

I was afraid I wouldn’t like the ending when I saw it wrapping up a little too quickly, but after it played out I thought it was done quite well, that it made sense, and that I will definitely need to acquire my own copy of this book so I can go read it again and see how everything fits together. And the epilogue, seriously, someone needs to go inform all the other epilogue writers that this is how you do it — none of that “btw this is what happened with all those other things” and all of that “here’s a scene or two that takes place later that happens to tie up some loose ends, nbd”.

Now I have to go read the sequel stories again so that I can understand them better… maybe in two years?

Recommendation: Do recommend. For lovers of mythology, America, and Neil Gaiman.

Rating: 9/10

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach

StiffMary Roach is one of the few nonfiction authors whom I have on my list of “authors whose entire backlist I should go read right now,” which is partially because I just don’t read that much nonfiction but mostly because Mary Roach writes that special kind of nonfiction that doesn’t feel like learning and therefore I am more willing to listen to it!

And I do mean listen — I don’t actually have any experience with Mary Roach in print form because I take her on road trips with me instead! This is good, because I get to listen to awesome and weird and often gross things that help keep me awake in the umpteenth hour of driving, but also kind of bad because the books end up running together with all the other podcasts and NPR segments I listen to.

That’s not so much a problem with this book, Roach’s first and the last of her backlist I had yet to read (now on to her newest book, Gulp!), because it’s about dead bodies and what strange things we do with them, like donating them to science or breaking them down via composting or plastinating them (is that a verb? I’m going with it) and showing them off to people who can’t decide whether to be intrigued or creeped out. I don’t hear much about that on NPR these days…

I think I was most interested by the parts about donating bodies to science and what sorts of rules and regulations there are for using said bodies and also the strange visceral reactions people have to the use of their dead relatives. I found it strange that a person might have a problem with a relative becoming a crash test dummy or otherwise being an entire body doing something gross or embarrassing for a live person, but be perfectly fine having a relative sort of chopped up into pieces suitable for use on smaller-scale experiments.

I also liked the foray into the funeral business and the true creepiness that is the embalming and beautifying process for those open-casket funerals (which will not be happening to any relatives on my watch, because seriously, creepy), and was supremely grossed out by the chapter on head transplants and the scientific experiments on animals who deserved better from life than to suffer that indignity.

But as always, no matter whether I’m amused or disgusted by what Roach is talking about, she makes the topic as accessible and humorous as possible. I think Roach could do wonders for education if she sat down and wrote a science curriculum or two, but then I wouldn’t have her available to write books for me, so I guess those kids will just have to deal with what they’ve got!

Recommendation: For people with strong stomachs and a love of weird science trivia.

Rating: 7/10

Bay of Fires, by Poppy Gee

Bay of FiresThis book sounded so promising when I nabbed it from the cataloging shelf… small-town Tasmania, a lady protagonist having a hard life whose problems fall by the wayside when she discovers a dead and probably murdered body, a man journalist protagonist out to figure out just what’s going on. The setting was new to me and therefore interesting, and I’m always intrigued by dead people and journalists, which probably says something about me that I don’t want to know, so keep it to yourself!

But sadly, Bay of Fires is not the book I had hoped it would be, and in fact is not a book that I should have finished, except that I read about half of it while stuck in jury selection (no juries for me, luckily!) and even though I knew I didn’t really like the book it was too late and I had to know what happened to everyone.

At first, I really liked what Gee was doing, narrative-wise, in that she would bring up something that happened to a character in the past but only briefly, and then would bring it up again later in a little more detail, fleshing out each character’s past a mention at a time. And sometimes these details would seem to matter to the dead-person-investigation at hand, and I would be like, ooooh, intriguing. But unfortunately, with all of the many little stories that Gee gave to her characters not every one could be actually important, and so I felt a bit let down every time something was completely innocuous or turned out not to be what it sounded like.

I also felt a bit frustrated at least once a page, it seemed like, whenever Gee would hand off the narration to another character’s viewpoint or even sometimes just when the scenery changed or a new character dropped in. Often these changes would just happen without warning or fanfare and I’d be left to figure out that we were in a different time or place, or that a new character or object must have been there the whole time because otherwise how was it here now?

But I think what really frustrated me, and yes, this is entirely my fault, is that I anticipated a mystery story (it’s in the mystery section!) with some character interactions, but I ended up with a story that was mostly about its characters separately, with little real interaction and with very little worry about the mystery proper.

I’m not sure who would like a novel like this — obviously some people do or there wouldn’t be such nice blurbs on the back, and I can’t say that it was a terrible story, just disappointing to me. I suppose if you’re like me and are trying to read more world-wide-ly, this book provides a pretty nice introduction to Tasmania and also the strange world of summer towns, so I’ll give it points for that.

Rating: 5/10

Doctor Who: The Forgotten, by Tony Lee

Doctor Who: The ForgottenSo I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here before (oh, right, briefly), but I like me some Doctor Who. I’m not as obsessive about it as some I know, but I’m always game to watch the new episodes or some of the older episodes that I hear are more modern in style, and I might possibly own a TARDIS coffee mug even though I don’t drink coffee. So when I found a couple of Doctor Who comic collections (this one and one other to be read later) on the shelf waiting to be cataloged, I figured I’d give them a go.

Well, actually, I almost didn’t give this one a go because I opened it up and saw Martha, my least favorite companion, and she wasn’t even written like the Martha of the television show and I was like, great, a lame companion and a lame writer? So I gave up after five pages. But then my husband, who shares my appreciation of the show, read it and told me that the writing was not, in fact, lame and that Martha was not really a major part of the story, and I was like, okay, let’s do this.

The story opens with Martha and The Doctor hanging out in a The Doctor Museum that is at first cool, and then kind of creepy when they note that no one else is around. The focus of the museum is a room containing the costumes and notable objects of the first nine Doctors, and when the Doctor suddenly loses his memory due to villainous interference, he uses the objects to remember stories of his past lives and thus remember himself or such-like. There are lots of adventures with lots of different companions, some happiness and some sadness, and of course lots of Doctors saving the day.

It’s not the greatest frame story, and the little mini-stories with the different Doctors are pretty quick and sometimes a little confusing without the context of a specific Doctor’s general escapades. However, being a primarily new-series Doctor Who watcher I appreciated the chance to find out more about all those Doctors I’ve missed and hang out again with those I haven’t seen in a while. I also really appreciated the writer’s notes at the end detailing how the project came about and how it had to change quite a bit between conception and execution, like a little commentary track for the book (how I love those!).

Recommendation: If you like Doctor Who and you want a chance to visit or revisit some past Doctors, you’ll have a fine time with this book, but I probably wouldn’t seek it out again.

Rating: 7/10

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Good OmensHee. Teehee. Hehehehehe.

This book, it is delightful. I was hooked from the prologue, which begins with “It was a nice day,” ends with, “It was going to be a dark and stormy night,” and has many humorous sentences in between. By a few pages later, I was texting the friend who had recommended it to me, saying, “I am on page 12 of Good Omens and I may already be in love with it.”

And love it I do. It reminded me very much of the only other Terry Pratchett I’ve read (which was also amazing), but it still felt fairly Gaiman-y to me even though I can’t for the life of me think of a purely funny thing that I’ve read of Gaiman’s. Maybe it’s the pacing of the story that does it? I don’t know. It’s not important.

What’s important is that this book is a, uh, let’s say a divine comedy of errors? Because the two main protagonist-types are Crowley and Aziraphale, the former the apocryphal serpent of Eden and the latter Eden’s angel guardian. One fights for the evil side, one for the good, but both of them spend a lot of time hanging out on Earth, so when the evil side gives humans eleven years to enjoy their universe Aziraphale and Crowley find themselves working together to see if they can’t maybe postpone that end of the world thing a little while.

Their plan is to keep an eye on the Antichrist and get him to make appropriate world-saving decisions, but of course it turns out that they’re keeping an eye on the wrong kid and with just a few days left in the world they have to go find the right one. Others are looking for the child, too, including the Four “Apocalyptic Horsepersons” and an occultist following the predictions left by her always-correct-even-if-you-don’t-know-it-until-later ancestor.

Although there is this plotline — Save the Antichrist, Save the World — most of the story dances around it, focusing instead on how the different characters interact with each other, what the meanings of “good” and “evil” really are, and how our human world came to be so immensely screwed up. And as I may have mentioned, it’s really all about the writing, and passages like the following:

“God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players, to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.”

The ending goes on a bit long, and it takes rather a lot of contrivance to get there (but how else would you?), but I was still quite satisfied and mostly I plan to remember those delightful parts anyway.

Although I read about half of it in print, I did end up listening to the whole thing on a quick road trip, and I can say that the audiobook narrator is a perfect fit for the book. Martin Jarvis has a lot of fun making up voices for the large number of characters and imbues them with the incredulity required to live in this very strange universe. If you need a good listen, check this out.

Recommendation: For lovers of Gaiman, Pratchett, Fforde, and other fine masters of British humor, or really just anyone who needs a laugh.

Rating: 9/10

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneAfter finishing up Let’s Pretend This Never Happened on our insanely long road trip, we clearly needed something a bit longer itself to fill the rest of our driving time. I had actually had this book loaded into my iTunes for about a year, having planned to listen to it on some other road trip that I guess never happened, but when Carl claimed in early December to be the last person to have read it, I was like, shoot, I’d better get on that.

And… it was pretty good? Scott and I decided early on in the audio, read surprisingly delightfully by Wil Wheaton (I will definitely listen to books read by him again!), that neither of us would have gotten past the first few pages of this on our own. Listening to it together, on the other hand, made for some delightful snarking at Cline’s love of lists and also some bonus understanding when only one of us was laughing at some pop culture reference.

Those references are probably why I wasn’t over the moon about the book, actually. Scott and I were both born in the mid-80s, right around the time period that this book is kind of frozen in (let me get to that in a second). So although I had at least some knowledge of most of the pop culture of the decade, and lots of knowledge of others (WarGames, I love you!), I didn’t have the deeper understanding of someone who is actually old enough to remember the mid-80s.

As to the story proper… okay. It takes place in a future world where Second Life never existed because it was invented as something called OASIS first. OASIS is way better, with fancy virtual reality technology that lets you actually move yourself around the virtual world with, like, your feet and stuff, and also OASIS has incredible market share to the point where its world and currency are thriving while the “real” world falls apart and has things like neighborhoods made entirely of vertical stacks of mobile homes. Classy, that.

Our protagonist, Wade in real life and Parzival in the OASIS, is part of a giant and complicated 1980s-themed scavenger hunt, basically, started by the guy who created the OASIS on the occasion of his death and the prize of which is like a billionty-twelve dollars and ownership of the guy’s company. Wade, who lives in one of those aforementioned stacks, is very interested in the money and is also super interested in the guy and the company and is therefore the first person to find the very first part of the scavenger hunt.

The story basically goes along from there as your classic quest story, with adventures and setbacks and evil enemies and all that, and that part is really fantastic. Especially toward the end of the book, once all the background has been exposited and all that’s left is to finish the scavenger hunt, the story is really engaging and I was like, OMG what is going to happen next? But it’s the whole first half or so of the novel, and some bits and pieces afterward, where Cline is setting up the universe and letting all of us non-80s folk know about the pop culture we’re about to find ourselves immersed in and also where he just apparently could not figure out how to show rather than tell, that the story feels kind of loooooong and booooring. And, really, I like a good list or run-on sentence as much as the next person, but it turns out that if you read them aloud in your narrator voice they are… not nearly as fun as you might hope. Blast.

So for as much as I enjoyed listening to Wil Wheaton read me this story, I might actually recommend eyes-reading this one so that when Cline gets bogged down in 80s minutiae you can just skip right ahead to the next exciting bit, or doing like I did and listening with a friend so that you can talk over the narration about what the heck is even going on in this crazy universe.

But do read it, because the parts that are good are pretty fantastic.

Recommendation: Best read by actual or self-taught nerd children of the 80s, also people who like quests and/or Wil Wheaton.

Rating: 8/10

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson

Let's Pretend This Never HappenedOne of the things I like about the 14-hour drive up to my parents and in-laws is that I get to listen to audiobooks along the way! I so rarely listen to them anymore that it’s nice to have some dedicated time where I’m really not going to do anything else.

I picked this particular audiobook to listen to because I highly enjoy the author’s blog, TheBloggess.com, and I’ve subjected my dear husband to a lot of the more ridiculous stories that she tells, usually starting them with, “So you know that crazy chicken lady?”

I haven’t gone back to read the entire site archives, so I don’t know if most of the essays in the book are also on the blog; I only noticed a couple of familiar entries myself, and those were still funny a second time so I’m not sure it really matters.

If you are not familiar with Lawson’s blog, you will probably still be entertained by this book, which includes your usual memoir fare — growing up, making friends, surviving college and marriage and children — but manages to be anything but usual. Lawson’s childhood involved a taxidermist father who would play practical jokes on his children with roadkill, and her adulthood seems largely comprised of trying to understand people whose parents didn’t do things like that.

Even better is Lawson herself reading the book; she knows exactly how weird most of her stories sound, and how sad some of them really are, and you get exactly the impression that Lawson intended when she wrote them.

I’d say the only downside to listening to this in the car is that sometimes you’ll find yourself so distracted by what Lawson is saying and how that could even be possible that you might, say, miss a turn. Or two. Maybe it would be safest to save this for your regular commute. But it’s definitely most entertaining when shared with a similarly humored friend.

Recommendation: For those who like the memoirs of, say, Tina Fey or Mindy Kaling or David Sedaris, and who don’t mind a dirty word or a thousand.

Rating: 9/10

The Last Dragonslayer, by Jasper Fforde

The Last DragonslayerI remember being really excited a couple of years ago to find out that my beloved author Jasper Fforde was coming out with a children’s book. I noted the release date and kept an eye out for it at my new and old libraries, but it never showed up. I was quite baffled by this seeming lack of love for the Fforde until I realized that, oh no!, it was only being released in the UK with no US date forthcoming. The agony!

Luckily I could content myself with One of Our Thursdays is Missing a few months later, and then things got real busy anyway and The Last Dragonslayer was relegated to the back of my mind until one day, a couple weeks before Christmas, it just showed up on my cart of books to catalog and I was like, so there is a Santa, then.

And oh, how delightful this book was to read. It’s your basic Fforde setup, taking magic and dragons and kingdoms in conflict and envisioning them tied up in eight layers of bureaucracy and apathy. We follow the exploits of Jennifer Strange, a fifteen-year-old who is acting head of a magical agency that sends out wizards to do things like rewire houses since magic is not quite as powerful as it once was. She’s doing quite all right until word gets out from some future-seers that the last dragon is about to be killed by the Last Dragonslayer, that the dragon’s lands are already surrounded by mobs looking to stake their claim, and that more than a few companies would be willing to pay good money if Miss Strange just hands over a bit of information from her agency’s own future-seer.

That’s not nearly all, of course; things get much weirder and even if you can tell where this plot is going, you probably don’t know how it’s going to get there. Fforde piles on the ridiculousness and the dry humor and all the fantastic-ness I’ve come to expect from him but still I’m never quite sure what is going on in that mind of his.

I think this book is especially good because it’s a first book in a series — Fforde excels in world-building and it’s always delightful to see how his new universes work. As much as I enjoy every Thursday Next book that comes out, it’s nice to have a fresh new set of characters and settings to cleanse the Fforde palate. 🙂 How long until the second book comes stateside?

Recommendation: For lovers of the Fforde or weird things in general or dragons or magic or… really, I think you should just read this.

Rating: 9/10